Google's moves raise questions about 'don't be evil' motto

Mar 16, 2012 By Mike Swift

With its "Don't Be Evil" motto, Google Inc. has always held itself to a higher moral standard.

Now observers, including many longtime admirers of the giant, say the Mountain View, Calif., company is behaving more like something it vowed never to become: a conventional company where the bottom line drives decisions.

The signs of that transformation in recent months include an illegal ad deal, a string of , an altered privacy policy that a key regulator called "brutal" for consumers and a change in search results that appear to favor Google's own social network, Google+, over competitors.

Google has about 12 times the revenue, 11 times the employees and arguably far more power over the Internet than it had when it proclaimed its idealism and went public in 2004. But as the Internet evolves to a more social and where a search engine can no longer tie everything together, Google is threatened as never before. The company is locked in an intense competition with rivals such as Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc., and it faces a patent-lawyer gutter fight with . and . over the intellectual property behind its crucial Android mobile operating system.

"I hesitate to think they've gotten 'evil,' because they never were that 'good' to begin with," said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, a website that covers search news. "But I do think it marks a much more aggressive company, a company that is not hesitant to do things, even if those things might draw more criticism than in the past."

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice required Google to forfeit $500 million for hosting ads from online Canadian pharmacies that led to the illegal importation of prescription drugs, and the slapped the company with an order requiring 20 years of independent privacy monitoring after a privacy breach with Google's Buzz social network.

In January, the world's dominant search company was accused of compromising its most basic values of fairness and objectivity by highlighting results from its Google+ social network over competitors like Twitter and Facebook.

Then, in February, Stanford University researcher Jonathan Mayer caught Google bypassing the privacy settings in Apple's Safari browser.

And, later that month, 36 state attorneys general wrote Google to complain that privacy plans the company had publicly claimed benefited consumers were in fact an "invasion of privacy." European regulators said Google's changes violate European law, and FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz called Google's take-it-or-leave-it stance a "somewhat brutal choice" for consumers. On March 1, Google enacted the changes anyway.

To many veteran Google watchers, that pattern of behavior represented a distinct break from the past for a company that promised its search results would be "objective" and "unbiased," and invoked the famous phrase "Don't Be Evil" in a seminal letter to shareholders before its 2004 IPO, in which co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin said: "Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one."

Google says it has not compromised its values, and that its recent privacy stumbles, such as the Buzz social network that led to the FTC order and the Safari breach, are simple mistakes caused by trying to move too quickly in the innovation race with its competitors.

"It's important to separate shortcomings from strategic decisions, like the decision to simplify our privacy policy or the launch of Search plus (Your World)," said Jill Hazelbaker, a Google spokeswoman. "There is no question we are moving faster, and this increased velocity has generally come with improved execution. Particularly in technology, fortune usually favors the fastest innovators.

"We take a long-term view, and the end goal is one simple, beautiful Google experience," she said.

To be sure, Google continues to do many "Googley" things for the social good, such as investing more than $900 million in green energy, or hosting a program in which the company regularly welcomes young minority Internet entrepreneurs from around the country to present their ideas at the Googleplex. But Google's leaders - particularly Page, who returned to the role of CEO a year ago - appear increasingly willing, observers said in a series of interviews in recent weeks, to make the same choices conventional companies do, choosing business imperatives over social values.

"In a certain sense, Google is being held to a higher standard," said Jon Fox of consumer advocacy group CalPIRG, referring to Google's privacy stumbles. "When Facebook does really nasty things, people are like, 'Oh well, it's Facebook, what can you expect from them?' But as Google is maturing, they are running up against that problem more and more of not doing evil."

John Battelle, a prominent tech blogger and author of "The Search," one of the first definitive books about Google, said the company doesn't have the locked-in network of customers that Facebook has, with its 850 million socially connected users, or Apple, with its popular iPods, iPhones and iPads connected to a powerful content system like iTunes.

That means Google "needs to become a unified platform that includes identity and relationships, or they face extinction. When you put it in that context, you can understand why they are doing some things that are frankly anathema to a lot of people, including me," Battelle said. "I think Larry Page identified that as the single most threatening thing Google faces and set about fixing it, and he's breaking some eggs to do it."

Google ignited a storm of criticism in tech circles when it announced a major change in its search results Jan. 10 that it dubbed "Search, plus Your World." For the first time, Google said its results would include "your personal content or things shared with you by people you care about" by featuring content people had posted on its Google+ social network.

The problem, said a loud chorus of critics, was that for most people, the idea of "Your World" also included Facebook or Twitter, services that have far more users than the 8-month-old Google+.

Instead, a Google search for "Mark Zuckerberg" was turning up results for Zuckerberg's Google+ page, where the Facebook CEO had never posted - hardly the most relevant result. Google was simply using its search dominance, critics charged, to prop up a less popular product, Google+.

"It's definitely a unique and different thing that doesn't have a comparison to anything else I've seen them do in their past," Sullivan said. "I just have never seen them put something on their search results page that was not inclusive of a wide variety of sources."

Google countered that Twitter and Facebook were preventing its search engine from crawling and indexing most of the other social services' content. But Sullivan said that even with those restrictions, Google could have done more to be fair, such as showing the public profile pages of people on Twitter and .

"They didn't try to go the extra mile to show that they really were being inclusive," he said.

But privacy - how Google uses the financially valuable personal data that it collects to target advertising - is emerging as a centerpiece of the debate about whether Google is willing to sell its soul for money.

When Google announced a significant change to its privacy policy Jan. 24, the company emphasized it was simplifying more than 60 privacy policies into a single, readable statement.

But the company did not explain in detail what was changing in practice. In the past, such Google services as search, YouTube and Gmail stored separate reservoirs of data about their users. Now consumer data from each Google service is being shared among all of them.

That means Google can draw an increasingly detailed portrait composed not just of your search history, but including who your friends are on Google+, your personal appointments from Google Calendar, your Gmail correspondence, your work and personal documents from Google Docs, your online reading habits from Google Reader, and the phone numbers you dial on Google Voice. The disclosure detailing the change, pointed out by Rainey Reitman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, came only after a letter to Google from eight unhappy members of Congress.

"I think in many ways some of the things Google has been doing lately might be rooted in a need to be an innovative, creative company trying new things," Reitman said. "However, the significant effects of these things on privacy can be quite extraordinary. Because so many people rely on them for services, it will affect millions of people. I think we have to hold companies that have this much data to a higher standard."

Some critics, such as Steve Pociask, president of the American Consumer Institute, said the Safari breach revealed Feb. 17, where Google bypassed built-in privacy settings on Apple's browser, was the last straw, and that regulators need to take antitrust or other action to rein in the search giant.

"The workaround, the hack trick, to me is the final indication that Google will do anything they can to dominate the market and to destroy their competition, and to collect consumer information even against their will," Pociask said. "I think there are a lot of people finally alarmed."

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User comments : 24

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bugmenot23
3 / 5 (2) Mar 16, 2012
I am annoyed that the article left out my biggest concern about g+ the real name debacle, until google allows me to use my nym without fear of deleting my account I will not join +.

That was the point at which I started questioning my loyalty to google, and they've done nothing but disappoint and upset me since.
steampoweredlawngnome
1 / 5 (11) Mar 16, 2012
Well that's quite enough senseless Google bashing for my tastes. I'm done with this site. I'm removing PhysOrg from my RSS feed.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.
Vendicar_Decarian
5 / 5 (9) Mar 16, 2012
I fail to see how allowing Americans to see the advertising of Canadian Pharmacies makes Google evil, or even complicit in the importation of lower cost certified Pharmacological drugs from Canada, and providing Americans greater access to lower priced health care.

Perhaps someone who is not evil can fill me in.
kochevnik
2 / 5 (8) Mar 16, 2012
Sounds like Micro$oft is paying bloggers to roll out bad press about Google.
Callippo
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 16, 2012
Every sufficiently large monopolistic company will behave in the same way. Before Microsoft it was IBM, which was sued for monopolistic behavior whole years and now it's just Apple and Google.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Mar 16, 2012
After hunting for the privacy setting (having been the object of some unnervingly targetted ads...i.e. doing a google search on furniture one day and receiving ads for the same furniture place on a number of websites the next)...I have dumped the g-plus account any anything else 'googely'. Might even switch search engines.

Never hought I'd see the day, but that 'privacy policy' IS evil.
Estevan57
1.8 / 5 (19) Mar 17, 2012
Haven't used Google for years. Microsoft doesn't need to pay for bad press, Google has earned everything written about it.

Canadian pharms were not all FDA approved, US goverment hates that. Not all of their drugs could be tracked to a manufacturer.

I find it amusing that Apple and Google have become even worse than than anything Microsoft ever was. The intrusiveness and proprietary crap from both just disgust me.
axemaster
5 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2012
But as the Internet evolves to a more social and mobile Web where a search engine can no longer tie everything together, Google is threatened as never before.

Really? I certainly never noticed any threat. Sure you didn't just make that up without thinking it through?
RitchieGuy
1.3 / 5 (12) Mar 17, 2012
I like Google and use it all the time. My main concern is the speed. .and I have no complaints in that area. Ads? That's something that goes with the territory. All in all, the service is very good and the privacy issue is minor.
sherriffwoody
not rated yet Mar 17, 2012
Sounds like Micro$oft is paying bloggers to roll out bad press about Google.

You must have been born in the 60's to still be using $ in MS
Vendicar_Decarian
5 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2012
I find Google's advertising beneficial at times and funny at times. Their advertising suggests that I need help looking for a new Russian wife who needs to purchase an Ipad for $6.00 through an on line auction.

CaptainSlog
not rated yet Mar 17, 2012
Sounds like Micro$oft is paying bloggers to roll out bad press about Google.

You must have been born in the 60's to still be using $ in MS

Yeah, it's now '$$$'
alfie_null
not rated yet Mar 17, 2012
Makes me wonder what are the ramifications of say, what you are using google at home for were to follow you to work? Just an example, but the point is a third party (your boss) could (sniffing traffic) be using google's ads to discover information you might have preferred remain private.
Vendicar_Decarian
3.4 / 5 (5) Mar 17, 2012
If you wish for something to be private then don't do it on line.

If you wish to not be photographed naked then don't expose yourself outside in public view.

I fail to see the problem.
socean
1.5 / 5 (2) Mar 17, 2012
I don't like corporate giants like Google, Apple, Oracle, Microsoft, Facebook, et al designing and implementing all the policies regarding data, but no one else is stepping up. I'm not sure I want these policies to take on the force of law, so perhaps government is not the best way to go, but something akin to a consumer's union might work.

Anyway, the notion that we are all going to remain individuals in an ever-more-seamlessly-connected world seems silly to me. So, privacy, smivacy.

Before long, everyone will be able know anything about anyone. Which in my mind, is better than a select few getting to know whatever they want and keeping all the great data mining tools to themselves.

Not only that, but as the global network permeates our daily living experiences, as interfaces become more intimate, e.g. HUDs and implants, etc. we become more integrated into a collective and less individualistic.

Watch this: http://www.youtub...4mU-wuhI
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.8 / 5 (10) Mar 17, 2012
I like Google and use it all the time. My main concern is the speed. .and I have no complaints in that area. Ads? That's something that goes with the territory. All in all, the service is very good and the privacy issue is minor.
You REALLY think people care what you think about GOOGLE?!!??! Unbelievable.

Sorry ritchie youve been reported once again for pointless verbiage, general dimwittedness, lying through your teeth, and demeaning this site by treating it like a chatroom. Go back to 4chan will you?
Recovering_Human
not rated yet Mar 17, 2012
If you wish for something to be private then don't do it on line.

If you wish to not be photographed naked then don't expose yourself outside in public view.

I fail to see the problem.


I'm sure anyone who's ever done banking online, or transmitted encrypted data, or had a password-protected account, or owned a private server, would also fail to see the problem.
Shelgeyr
1.6 / 5 (7) Mar 17, 2012
With its "Don't Be Evil" motto, Google Inc. has always held itself to a higher moral standard.

"...has always PRETENDED TO HOLD itself to a higher moral standard" is more like it.

Google's moves raise questions about 'don't be evil' motto

Let's just cut to the chase, shall we?

They're evil.

And strangely, it has pretty much nothing to do with them "being" a gigantic corporation. No, being something like that doesn't automatically and inevitably impart a status of "evil".

Once again, like in every other situation, it is all behavior-based. In other words, they're evil because they act evil.
Vendicar_Decarian
5 / 5 (2) Mar 17, 2012
Like the pissing Frenchmen if you are going to do that kind of thing then you had better hide your weenie weenie lest you be observed exposing yourself.

Encryption is your friend.

"I'm sure anyone who's ever done banking online, or transmitted encrypted data, or had a password-protected account, or owned a private server, would also fail to see the problem." - Recovering
RitchieGuy
1 / 5 (8) Mar 18, 2012
Google is a good Capitalist corporation. It serves a purpose. You can take it or leave it. It doesn't bother Google if you leave; there's always more users. I still like Google anyway. :)
Vendicar_Decarian
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 18, 2012
What RichieTard is trying to say, is that in America there is a sucker born every minute.

RichieTard provides such a fine example of that principle.
RitchieGuy
1.5 / 5 (8) Mar 18, 2012
Venditard. . .you are a true Capitalist at heart and you do love Google, admit both.

Oh, and. . .socialism sucks big time. . .read all about it. :)
Vendicar_Decarian
5 / 5 (2) Mar 18, 2012
"Venditard. . .you are a true Capitalist at heart and you do love Google, admit both." - RichieTard

Google is one of the more ethical companies I have seen.

I commend them for their social conscience.

steviesama
not rated yet Mar 27, 2012
And never mind that the Google strategy involves weaving it into their whole company paradigm, Google Plus activity helping drive more personal/accurate search customization. It's always cry foul, never take some time to understand why they are doing it. Remember the one thing they have that isn't open source is their search algorithm, it's very organic, and no one can say what they might be able to do to help it give even better results including a measure to make it more interactive through the social networking platform.